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Paying for the party: How a major university failed and derailed its freshmen

Published: Saturday, Nov. 9 2013 5:25 p.m. MST

A pair of researchers spent years following the progress of women from a single freshman dorm at a major state flagship university. What they found is not encouraging when it comes to the capacity of a college education to break down social barriers.

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When working-class parents dropped off their aspiring daughters at a freshman dorm at Midwestern University in 2004, they thought they were launching their kids on the broad path to the American dream. Get a college degree, they were told, and go to the best school you can. So they did.

What they didn't realize was that other parents were coming from the opposite direction, sending to that same dorm other more privileged, less academically serious daughters. And they didn't realize that the school was, in many ways, built for those other daughters. Nor did they realize that the collision of the scrappy, aspiring lower-class world with the comfortable but indifferent upper-class world was about to derail their daughtes' ambitions.

Rather than a clear path to the American dream, "Midwestern University," a pseudonym for a flagship state university in, not surprisingly, the Midwest, was actually a landmine-strewn maze.

At least that's what sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong, now at the University of Michigan, and Laura Hamilton, now at the University of California, Merced, found after they spent years tracking the progress of the women they found during that first year when Hamilton, then a graduate student, lived in the dorm.

Through clues buried in their book, it did not take long before it was an open secret that the Midwestern U. was the Indiana University, where both sociologists were based at the time. Indiana University did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

In "Paying for the Party," Armstrong and Hamilton outline their surprising discoveries — including the critical role of parental savvy, the seduction of the "party pathway" that worked for the wealthy few but created a destructive mirage for others, the toxic mix of easy majors and bad GPAs, and why less-privileged women benefited from transferring to less-prestigious state schools.

Savvy parents

One finding that surprised the researchers was the critical role parents played in success. This was more surprising, though no less important, than the fact that parental social and business networks and their ability to help financially after college mattered.

The right parents offered significant advantages, Armstrong said, especially if they had been to college. It was not uncommon for such parents to direct their kids to take harder courses at a community college over the summer, Armstrong said, "so grade distribution would be higher and more time to focus on that one course."

Children of savvy parents might know how important it is to participate in the right extracurricular activities to get into dental school, or how to network with professors, even turning confrontations about grades into a networking opportunity.

"Professors might add a point or two if they know you care and have high expectations of yourself," Hamilton said. "They learn your name, and that can unconsciously affect grading."

Those who didn't get that kind of advice, she said, "might find themselves channeled into super hard courses right away, or into courses that were very specific, and when that major didn't work out they didn't count for anything else."

Because parental support proved so critical, Hamilton concluded, "A college degree is not the great equalizer that people want it to be. Family resources matter a lot. Ideally there would be resources for less privileged to succeed."

"Our women found that they often did not get that kind of advice until it was too late," Armstrong added.

Party pathways

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